With the current focus on the argument for and against a ten team SPL and the impending vote on this proposal, it was surprising to hear that Neil Doncaster has been plotting another change to the SPL, which is to start next seasons SPL on July the 23rd, approximately three weeks earlier than the current season. Whether this is a good idea or not is up for debate, but as always, the SPL chief executive had a number of points up his sleeve to persuade us that it’s a good idea.
Starting the season earlier, will, as Doncaster states: “reduce the number of midweek games in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League during the winter months.”
I previously wrote about the possibility of incorporating a winter break into the Scottish football calendar, to help ease a fixture build up caused by poor weather, but I welcome this alternative solution. Less midweek games does give the potential for fewer postponements due to the weather, but it also provides additional fixture dates for rearranged matches, that will hopefully mean we wont be faced with the situation this season where Rangers and Dundee United are looking at playing four games in eight days.
In addition to alleviating fixture congestion during the winter months, Doncaster also outlined the benefits it could bring to teams competing in Europe. Doncaster said: “The earlier a season starts, the more battle-hardened SPL players are by the time they compete in the early stages of European completion. Last year for example, Hibernian, Celtic and Dundee United all fell at the first hurdle in Europe. The Swiss, by contrast, seem to punch above their weight in the early stages of European competition. They kick off their domestic programme early in July and attribute much of their European success to their early start date at home.”
With our coefficient taking a battering over the last few years, anything we can do to give our teams a fighting chance at progressing is a good thing for me. Teams can play as many friendlies as they want to prepare for Europe, but its only when they play competitive games, that the players can really get themselves match fit. I am not naive enough to suggest that one or two games under your belt is the magic wand to European success, but it at least gives us a fighting chance.
Doncaster concludes with a final point that will make every team sit up and take notice – an early start could mean more money for every club. Doncaster states: “By kicking off and concluding our season at the same time as the English, we are diluting the appeal of our games to broadcasters. In contrast, by starting our season ahead of the Premier League, at a time when there is a real shortage of football on TV, we allow our broadcast partners to properly showcase SPL football to the whole of the UK and the rest of the World. And this will inevitably drive more interest (and more broadcast income) in the Scottish game.”
Doncaster is right, our football can not match up against the English game, at least not UK wide, so starting a few weeks earlier will mean that the broadcasters can give us top billing and help raise the profile of our game. A higher profile does not necessarily mean that the rights are worth more, but it certainly cant hurt.
So far I have outlined the positives, but there are negatives.
Teams have increasingly used the pre-season to arrange lucrative tours or competitions abroad. The Old Firm are particularly keen on playing games on foreign soil and this is highlighted by the fact that Celtic have already agreed to appear in the Dublin Super Cup, which is due to take place on July 30th and 31st. Doncaster has conceded that clubs will be allowed to opt out of one round of fixtures during this early start and Celtic will definitely take that option to appear in the prearranged cup. This opt out rule has assisted Celtic in this instance, but I suspect that teams would have fitted in more than one weekend of games and may therefore feel aggrieved with this early start.
I am not alone in spotting negatives to this proposal, with Neil Lennon recently responding with some apprehension regarding the number of weeks that the season will last. With Celtic having a number of international players in their squad, who will no doubt partake in internationals following the conclusion of our domestic season, he is wary that there may not be long enough of a break between the end of one season and the start of another. Lennon said: “I’ll have players away on international duty at the end of this season, so their close-season is going to be curtailed even more. Players seem to be playing 52 weeks of the year these days, so we’ll have to see how they are physically and mentally when they get back.”
Although the plans are not without their downsides, I would say that I am pleased overall. Postives include; giving our teams a better chance in Europe, possibly easing the fixture congestion, potentially giving our teams a financial boost, but also, dare I say more importantly, allowing us to enjoy more football in the glorious Scottish sunshine.